As part of WLC’s mission to promote respect for W̱SÁNEĆ culture, this is the first of a multi-part series honouring W̱SÁNEĆ community leaders. The series begins with the life story of Chief Thunderbird, also known as Jean Baptiste Paul.

Whichever path in life he would have chosen, Jean Baptiste Paul, or Chief Thunderbird as he was known in the wrestling arena, was destined to be special. In 1896 at Brentwood on Vancouver Island, he was born the hereditary chief of the Tsartlip Nation—son to Tommy Paul and grandson to Ben Paul, both of whom were also chiefs. With an impressive and storied athletic career spanning over two decades, Thunderbird became Canada’s first big-name Indigenous wrestler, making his wrestling debut in 1933 before retiring from the scene in 1955.


This drive and motivation to be an athlete spurred him forward, and he eventually found himself at the Cushman School in Tacoma, Washington, where he became affectionately known as “The Chief.” His athletic prowess was evident from the onset as he secured eight noteworthy sports letters—in wrestling, boxing, track and field, lacrosse, baseball, basketball, football, and soccer—a feat that soon became the subject of various local news articles. Thunderbird himself was not shy about his achievements, as he frequently regaled audiences with tales of being able to beat his adult wrestling coach while still a student.


Thunderbird began his public wrestling career in 1933, at 37, after a dare at the Washington State Fair led to his beating the fair champion. According to an October 1936 article from The Ring magazine, “The Chief didn’t pin the ‘carnival champion,’ but he amassed the large sum of five dollars for the five minutes he had spent in the ring before being pinned. The following evening, the Chief returned again, facing the athletic arena’s ruler. This time, the bout was a different story. After fifteen minutes in which he matched his strength against the tricks of the carnival grappler, Thunderbird was grudgingly declared the winner when the ‘champ’ was unable to continue.”


Over the years, he showed interest and skill in other sports, taking part in an international water competition in 1933, where he won many events against other Indigenous competitors. Additionally, he spent time as a boxer, winning 27 of his 32 professional fights and breaking both hands at various times. Aside from these successes, wrestling became his mainstay. Two featured elements became his signature: first, he would enter the ring in traditional Indigenous regalia (complete with a feathered headdress and less true to authentic Tsartlip-style regalia), and second, his famous wrestling move became known as the “Saanich snap”—similar to an “Indian Deathlock” but with an emphasis on arm strength and motion.


His renown spread across Canada and the United States, spilling over the pond to the United Kingdom. A program from March 1951 that promoted an event between Thunderbird and Pat O’Reilly read: “The Red Indian warrior has made a terrific reputation for himself in this country in the wrestling ring, and due to his broadcasts over the B.B.C. is probably the best-known Indian Chief ever to visit Great Britain. Everywhere he has appeared, there have been ‘house full’ signs displayed long before starting time, and there is no doubt he is a fine wrestler.”

Thunderbird once jokingly said to reporters, commenting on his British popularity, “They treated me like a human being over there. You must have kept all your nice people here and sent your mean whites to my country. Because they certainly wound up stealing it from us Indians.” He toured often throughout his career, making trips to Australia, Hawaii, and India, though he did take some time off during the early 1940s—most likely due to World War II. He retired from wrestling in 1955 after he broke a leg in two places.


Despite the strength and depth of his athletic legacy, Thunderbird found time to nourish other passions. After his retirement from the public arena, Thunderbird worked as a gardener, played music, and created art. According to Slam Magazine, Thunderbird expressed “his lively interest in the world through drawing and handicraft, making music by ear on various instruments, and executing native dances of other lands as well as his own. His garden is ornamental as well as useful with evidence of a taste for woodworking.”


His care for the land extended beyond ornamental gardening and landscaping. In February 1957, he spoke out publicly against the proposed transfer of 700 acres of Saanich territory in Goldstream to make a park. “Indian title to the Goldstream properties can be proven,” he said. “The white man has encroached upon the Indian’s hereditary hunting and fishing grounds at Goldstream.”


Thunderbird eventually passed away on November 23, 1966, at the age of 71, after a

two-week hospitalization at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Saanich, BC. At the time, Slam Magazine reports, he was survived by his wife Julia; three sons—Harvey Andrew (Jack), Roy, and Carl; three daughters—Juanita (Gordon Underwood), Jeanette (Maurice Barrett), and Freda (John Cooper); his brother Paul; his sister Mrs. Elsie Roney; and 29 grandchildren. His funeral mass was on West Saanich Road at Our Lady of the Assumption Church.


Shortly thereafter, the Brentwood Women’s Institute campaigned to formally recognize Thunderbird. Their efforts led to the creation of a totem pole—crafted by Thunderbird’s nephew Benjamin Paul—publicly unveiled in August 1969, ensuring its continued legacy.


WLC will continue celebrating W̱SÁNEĆ community leaders in the coming months. To stay up to date on the latest articles, subscribe to the WLC newsletter.